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The Fish Market at the Center of the World
By Theodore C. Bestor
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
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Watanabe-san introduced me to Tsukiji. He ran a small sushi shop in Fukagawa, a venerable neighborhood in the shitamachi region, the old merchant districts of downtown Tokyo. In 1975 my wife Victoria and I — just married and in Japan to study the language — found ourselves living in an apartment a couple of blocks from Watanabe's shop. Visiting an unknown sushi shop requires a leap of faith. One worries less about the quality of the food than about prices, which in sushi bars are as notoriously unpredictable as the welcome accorded a newcomer (whether Japanese or foreign). On a limited student budget, we eyed Watanabe's shop with some trepidation. But hungering for sushi one evening, we finally mustered the courage to stick our heads through his noren: the long split curtain decorated with bold swirls of calligraphy that restaurants and shops hang in their doorways to display their trade names.
As we entered, a roaring chorus of "Irasshaimase" ("Welcome") arose automatically from the throats of the apprentice chefs behind the counter. As their guttural greetings died away, we heard "Come in, please" from a middle-aged man who wielded his long knife over a block of tuna with the authority that clearly marked him as the master of the house. Watanabesan, we learned within minutes, had had a varied and almost certainly checkered career during the immediate postwar years. He had acquired a liking for Americans, often expressed in staccato bursts of exuberant if cryptic Chandler-esque slang.
We soon became regulars, sustained in part by the discovery that Watanabe's affection ensured, no matter what we ate (within reason), our bill would come to precisely ¥1,000 apiece. Like many sushiya, Watanabe's shop kept track of each customer's bill by tossing colored plastic chips into a small masu, a square wooden box used variously as a dry measure for rice or as a vessel for drinking cold saké. Prices were not posted, nor were they discussed with customers. At the end of the meal an apprentice would simply count out the chips and arrive at a total by some semisecret calculus. To preserve the niceties in front of the other customers, Watanabe's apprentice would dutifully count our chits and, with feigned concentration at an abacus, announce that our bill came to ¥2,000.
Usually we sat at the tiny sushi bar: half a dozen stools at an unstained wooden counter against a low glass-fronted refrigerated display case, across which Watanabe and his apprentices stood ready to prepare whatever we requested. A huge map of Japan made of cedar burls set into plaster dominated the back wall, only five or six long steps from the entry. Along the side wall were a couple of tables that could seat only two or three patrons, and upstairs was a small room — only six tatami mats — for private parties. But almost no one ever sat anywhere except at the counter, since the charm of Watanabe's shop lay in selecting one's next tidbit from the glass case and in joking with the apprentices as they prepared take-out orders.
Amulets and talismans dotted the restaurant's walls. The iconography of sushi mementos unfolded for us in visit after visit, as Watanabe explained this decoration or that motif: to pull in customers, a large white plaster "beckoning cat" clutching a gold coin in one paw and waving the other to attract passersby; to pull in profits, a huge bamboo rake ornately decorated with the Seven Gods of Fortune, treasure ships, gold coins, and bales of rice. Watanabe and his apprentices brought these and other charms back from the many festivals and fairs they visited at shrines throughout shitamachi. Other talismans were gifts. Over the counter, a wide wooden frame held narrow vertical plaques, each bearing the name of a person or a shop and a squiggle of calligraphy. We puzzled through the characters, learning in the process that a dozen of his main suppliers gave him the piece as a congratulatory gift when Watanabe last remodeled his shop. The names of his friends and their shop names or trade symbols (yago) visibly testified to his network of personal ties in the seafood trade. The calligraphic swirl after each name read uogashi — literally, the "fish quay" — the fish market.
During our visits Watanabe's apprentices amused themselves by carving graceful decorations from folded bamboo leaves, pleased at our surprise when a flurry of delicate cuts with a foot-long knife created a crane in flight framed by a fan, or the silhouette of Mount Fuji partially obscured by clouds. They entertained us with jokes and stories recounted in the complicated style of shitamachi banter — sharé — that depends on wordplay, visual puns, and incongruity. They taught us a repertoire of word games and bar tricks to spring on unsuspecting customers tempted to match wits with apparently witless foreigners: if presented with six matches and the injunction not to break or bend any of them, could we form the character for aki (autumn), written with nine bold, straight brush strokes? Yes, it would turn out, after the side bets were made, we could. We earnestly listened as they taught us sushi slang — less a secret trade argot than a modest marker of connoisseurship — in which rice is called shari, soy sauce is murasaki, and a cup of tea is agari, not to be confused with gari, the sushi word for pickled ginger.
Watanabe's backstreet shop introduced us to Japan outside the straitlaced spheres of salarymen, to life led without suits in the small-scale entrepreneurial world of shitamachi. As a sushi chef, Watanabe was a self-employed master craftsman with two apprentices and a family whose members — his mother, wife, and son — all played roles in keeping the family business going. Watanabe's customers, mostly from the neighborhood, were taxi drivers, proprietors of mom-and-pop retail shops, machine shop owners, bar hostesses, barbers, and Buddhist priests, along with a few weary salary-men stopping off late at night on their way home from Japan, Inc. In Watanabe's sushi bar we glimpsed an easygoing social milieu where home and workplace often overlapped and where social networks easily cut across household, occupation, and neighborhood.
As we hung out at Watanabe's shop week after week, we began to appreciate the variety of seafood he stocked in his glass display case. Some things he had available every evening — tuna, octopus, shrimp, salmon roe — but other delicacies would appear only occasionally or would be in stock for a few weeks before they vanished: the kurodai (black sea bream) of late summer giving way to autumn's shad (kohada), red clams (akagai), and flounder (hirame), then to yellowtail (buri) as autumn turned to winter. Gradually we learned a little about the seasonal flow of seafood and the scattered regions of Japan where particular species were harvested at different times, and we discovered — to our surprise — that some of the fresh seafood before our eyes was from the United States, Canada, or Southeast Asia.
Occasionally a regular customer would order something that Watanabe would politely decline to serve, even though we — and they — could see a tray of it glistening in the case. Later, when other customers were not around, Watanabe explained that sometimes he bought lower-grade fish to serve during the lunchtime rush hour, but not to regular evening customers who counted on his expertise to provide only the best. At other times, he wouldn't stock a certain fish at all if he couldn't find the quality he wanted. Every time we visited, the selection was somewhat different, but always fresh and always in minute quantities. Once I asked him where he got his fish, innocently wondering aloud whether he and the fishmonger down the block bought seafood together. His apprentice snorted.
Watanabe patiently explained that retail fishmongers bought fish for housewives, not for sushi chefs. He told us about a vast market — Tsukiji — where he and his apprentices went two or three mornings a week to select their fish. Fishmongers and supermarkets also got seafood there, he explained, but the market was so large that dealers supplied every conceivable grade and variety of seafood for every conceivable kind of restaurateur and retailer. Takahashi, his senior apprentice, broke in with a laugh. "Gaijin dakara, wakaru hazu ga nai'n da. Ichido, tsurete iko ka?" — "They're foreigners; how would they know what you're talking about? Let's take 'em sometime."
Watanabe shrugged. Doubtful, he emphasized how early he and his apprentices made their shopping expedition. We lied and said we liked to get up early. And so, a few days later on a freezing February morning, we arrived outside his shop at 4:30 A.M. Bundled in our warmest clothes, we piled into the back of his minivan with his two apprentices and roared off into the black dawn along deserted streets and across tiny bridges over the canals that wind through the Sumida River delta between Fukagawa and Tsukiji. During daytime the trip might take forty-five minutes or longer through the dense traffic; at that hour, we made it in about a quarter of an hour.
Out to the freezing banks of the Sumida River he led us, to see the rows of tuna laid out for the morning auctions. Blanketed in thick cocoons of frost, solidly frozen tuna the size of tree trunks clinked like brittle chimes as prospective buyers picked out slivers of tail meat for inspection. Crowds of buyers and auctioneers warmed their hands at fires stoked with the broken wooden crates lying about. We watched auctions go by in a split second as Watanabe tried to explain to us the hand signals and staccato chants that indicated bids. He led us through warrens of stalls where he or his chief apprentice would stop for a moment or two to purchase a kilogram of shrimp, or a large cut of tuna, or several legs of octopus, or a tray or two of sea urchin roe, and then thrust the purchase into a rectangular bamboo wicker basket slung over the junior apprentice's shoulder. If money changed hands, I didn't see it. In the fast conversations back and forth I couldn't catch any discussions of prices. Watanabe and his crew knew exactly where they were going, and what they were going to buy when they got there. Though they paused along the way to examine products at many stalls scattered around the marketplace, to my inexperienced eyes the ikura (salmon roe) they didn't purchase where they bought the kamaboko (fish pâté) looked identical to the salmon roe they did buy at the stall where they ignored the pâté.
Suddenly they were done. Out we darted into a swirling mass of tiny trucks and handcarts and threaded our way across the traffic to a dingy hole-in-the-wall restaurant where Watanabe treated us to the best tempura we had ever eaten. We washed our breakfast down with several beers, strolled to a nearby knife shop where Watanabe ordered some cutlery from the proprietor, evidently an old friend, and then climbed into his van and made our way back to Fukagawa, by now — at 8:30 in the morning — almost an hour's drive away.
Tsukiji was transfixing, but overwhelmingly other, a world seemingly beyond our ability to explore more fully, as intriguing yet as remote as the Fulton Fish Market is for most New Yorkers (if much less menacing). Vickey and I chalked up our visit as a fascinating experience, and went about our rounds of language lessons, English teaching jobs, and explorations of Tokyo. A couple of months later we returned to the United States, and after a few postcards we lost touch with Watanabe. Later visits to Tokyo were filled with other preoccupations. From time to time we would take a visitor to Tsukiji, and I would remember Watanabe.
Our six months in Fukagawa had borne other fruit, however. From that stay I had gained an abiding interest in the shitamachi districts of Tokyo, in workaday neighborhoods where ordinary people lead unremarked-upon lives, and in the small shopkeepers and independent entrepreneurs who make such neighborhoods work. A few years later, in 1979, equipped with Japanese language skills for intensive ethnographic research, I returned to Tokyo to work on a doctoral dissertation about daily life in just this sort of neighborhood, though it wasn't in Fukagawa nor — except in the minds of its residents — even in shitamachi (T. Bestor 1985, 1989, 1990, 1992a, 1992b, 1996; Plath 1992b). After that research (from 1979 to 1981) — on communities, on the nature of tradition as a cultural process, and on the roles that small shopkeepers play in sustaining local tradition and community organizations — I returned to Tokyo again in 1988 to focus more on the small businesses themselves. I wanted to understand the kinds of social ties that bolster family-run enterprises in Tokyo and the ways in which networks of kinship, friendship, political advantage, and personal obligation are the fiber of the commercial distribution system.
Foreign businesspeople, trade negotiators, and economists often argue that the Japanese distribution system is a source of great economic inefficiency, a hindrance to consumers, and a nontariff trade barrier that blocks free access to the Japanese marketplace; these were major issues in the so-called Structural Impediments Initiative (SII) that occupied the attention of American trade negotiators during the height of U.S.-Japanese trade friction in the 1980s and early 1990s (Schoppa 1997). My interest was (and is) to understand the social and cultural contexts in which distribution is embedded, seeing the complexity of distribution channels not simply as an economic phenomenon in its own right but as an effect or product of the social milieu in which small-scale sectors of the Japanese economy flourish. Although analysts generally agree about the shape of Japanese distributional systems, they hotly debate their underlying causes and significance.
Some see Japanese distribution channels largely as the product of government regulatory protection of powerful political interests — small shopkeepers, for example — for whom distributional efficiency matters less than other goals. These include limiting the operations of large-scale retail stores, ensuring the survival of neighborhood shopping districts and the hundreds of thousands of mom-and-pop stores that exist in Japan today, and preserving many of the exclusive and particularistic relationships that link producers, wholesalers, and retailers into complex, multilayered distributional systems.
Other analysts, although they are willing to accept the above description as largely accurate, argue that the Japanese wholesale sector owes its complexity and multilayered character to particular conditions of the urban labor market, including the prevalence of household labor and small-scale entrepreneurship, land costs, the density of trade, and costs of credit, that enable small shops and the distribution networks that supply them to capture substantial functional efficiencies absent from the domestic economies of most other industrial societies.
Debates between these two sides — those who see government regulation and political pressure as root causes and those for whom the peculiarities of the urban Japanese economy are fundamental — became embedded in interpretive dogmas, especially during the Japan-U.S. trade frictions of the 1980s. One school of thought viewed (and views) Japan as an intentionally closed economy, dismissing protestations about the particularities of Japanese social and cultural forms as largely protectionist smokescreens. An opposing point of view regards Japan as a semi-open economy moving toward greater flexibility yet retaining special features of social and cultural life that have sustained its economic growth thus far and that cannot be expected to disappear overnight. Both sides agree that the Japanese economy has peculiarities, and that the structure of Japanese distribution channels gets to the heart of fundamental questions about the character of Japanese social organization, economic behavior, and cultural values (see Flath 1988, 1989a, 1989b, 2000; Ito 1992; Ito and Maruyama 1990; Lincoln 1990, 2001; Schoppa 1997).
I spent the academic year 1988–89 in Tokyo conducting research on these questions at street level, focused in a general way on small family-run shops in the food business (see T. Bestor 1990). Midway through the year, my fieldwork among small shopkeepers and their networks of suppliers led me back to Tsukiji to interview a few wholesalers about their connections with retailers and to ask them some questions about supply and demand and market access. Earlier, I had done research on distribution channels for whale meat, examining the routes along which this now-controversial delicacy travels from small coastal whaling communities to regional markets for local consumers and to metropolitan markets for the restaurant trade. People in the whale business introduced me to a few Tsukiji traders whom I could interview about the structure of the marketplace.
TSUKIJI SNAPS INTO FOCUS
In February 1989, an official I knew at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (henceforth TMG) sent me to meet a colleague who was a senior administrator at the marketplace. Mr. Shimizu was a career bureaucrat who had rotated through dozens of positions, landing in the marketplace only a year or so before my visit to his office. But as a senior official, supervising a staff of dozens, he had the time to exercise his intellectual curiosity and had read a great deal about the historical background of the marketplace. He turned out to be the perfect person to talk to: a newcomer himself, still fascinated by the world in which he found himself a powerful figure, he was surrounded by people who had been there longer and at lower levels who did not share his enthusiastic sense of discovery — and now, sitting before him in his office, was a younger foreign researcher asking him to explain the market.
Excerpted from Tsukiji by Theodore C. Bestor. Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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